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In-store showdown: GlowLight vs Paperwhite

Fri 28th December 2012

Since playing with the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight last month, I have had the chance to try the Kindle Paperwhite a couple of times. First was when my friend showed me his Paperwhite after we taught in a computer lab. Although it was only a brief opportunity, it was nice to get an idea of what it felt like and to see the backlight in action.

Kindle Paperwhite

Kindle Paperwhite

My second view of the Kindle Paperwhite was during post-Christmas sales shopping. Again, this John Lewis had failed to realise the the USP of both the GlowLight and Paperwhite is that they have backlights, and as such both were tethered to security stands directly under the brightest lights in the store!

There was also a GlowLight next to the Paperwhite, and all my opinions about the Paperwhite are in relation to my initial impressions of the GlowLight, so I guess this blog post should probably compare the two, rather than just talking about the Paperwhite.

Showdown

There are three main factors determining my decision between the GlowLight and the Paperwhite: the backlight, the way it feels to hold when using it and the usability of the software. Let’s go through them one by one.

Backlight

As alluded to in the intro, this is really difficult to determine in store, or in the office, or basically anywhere which isn’t your bed, at night, with the lights off, because that is the primary problem the backlight is trying to solve. However, even with the lights on, it is possible to see the difference between the lit and unlit screen, so I can say a couple of things about that:

Firstly, there is definitely a backlight in both the GlowLight and the Paperwhite, it does work and I’m fairly confident it will light the e-ink display well enough to make it legible in the dark.

Secondly, that light is quite smooth, if that’s a thing a light can be. It certainly doesn’t have the sharp glare of a backlit LCD display, like on a smartphone or a tablet. It feels as if the screen is gently glowing, almost like a light under a piece of paper, which I guess is the desired effect!

32/366:  Adding Books to the Nook Simple Touch...

Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight

Thirdly, the GlowLight and Paperwhite differ in the way you turn the backlight on. The GlowLight’s main method of switching the light on is to long-hold (2 seconds) the Nook button (upside down U). The Kindle has an icon on the top status bar, which lets you select between about 20 or so levels of brightness. While the GlowLight makes turning the light on and off a main physical feature of the device, it makes you wonder how often you really need to turn the light on and off during a reading session: either it’s light or dark, and perhaps that state changes once (unless you’re reading for dozens of hours).

When comparing the backlights of the GlowLight and the Paperwhite, there is one glaring difference: the top of the GlowLight screen is noticeably brighter than the rest of the screen (you can actually see the light being cast from the three LEDs embedded in the top bezel), whereas the Paperwhite is reasonably evenly lit (at least under shop lights).

How much of an issue this when actually reading is debatable, and really requires a true field test. However, it does point to the fact that Barnes and Noble have not put quite as much effort into polishing their product as Amazon.

Hand feel

What the device feels like to hold and to physically use is very important. I will compare the GlowLight and Paperwhite on physical size, build quality and interaction style.

The Paperwhite is narrower and perhaps a tad thinner, both due to features of the GlowLight that the Paperwhite doesn’t have: hardware buttons for turning pages (makes the GlowLight wider) and a finger-ledge on the back cover (which makes the GlowLight slightly thicker). Although the GlowLight is slightly easier to hold in certain positions, I’m not sure it justifies the extra size as holding the Paperwhite in one hand is perfectly comfortable.

The Paperwhite beats the GlowLight hands down on build quality. Everything about the GlowLight feels a bit fragile and plastic, whereas the Paperwhite is solid and hard. I’d compare the difference to that between an aluminium solid body MacBook and any of the plastic-cased laptops that Dell and HP put out.

The GlowLight and Paperwhite differ on interaction styles. The GlowLight has more options, as it has both a touch screen and physical buttons on the left and right bezel, while the Paperwhite only has a touch screen. This is my main concern with the Paperwhite, as I think the action to move a finger to the screen and swipe/tap is far more annoying that squeezing on the button that is already under your thumb (as you inevitably hold an e-reader by the bezel when it has buttons 🙂 It is worth nothing, though, that the buttons on the GlowLight are crappy and not very fun to squeeze, so its one advantage is really a missed opportunity.

Software

The GlowLight massively loses out to the Paperwhite on responsiveness. While you might think this is due to the refresh rate of e-ink screens, I am pretty sure it is not as whilst in a book on the GlowLight, turning the first couple of pages is as quick as the Paperwhite. However, then it realises that it has forgotten to cache the next page and there’s a second or so pause with no visual indication that your button press or screen tap has been received! This sluggishness is compounded when trying to navigate the far more complex menu system and store. By building on Android, Barnes and Noble seem to have thought that they were building a full-on tablet, and failed to optimise the interface or what they display on-screen to suit the refresh rate of the e-ink screen.

While the Paperwhite is by no means perfect (it took me several minutes to work out which bit of the screen to press to bring up a menu while reading), it is a far slicker experience than the GlowLight and the operating system has clearly been built with e-ink in mind. Menus are uncluttered, and direction of motion is generally only vertical.

Summary

Before I had seen either device, I had high hopes for the GlowLight: I have a few concerns over Amazon’s domination of the market and the stories of the control they exert over your Kindle account. Back in the summer when I first started thinking about buying an e-reader the GlowLight was also the only device with a backlight available in the UK. Having used the GlowLight, I am quite disappointed. While it does all of the things an e-reader with a backlight should be able to do, there’s just a nagging thought that all of it should have been done a little bit better. Even if the Paperwhite hadn’t been announced for the UK, I’m not sure I would have bought it.

The Paperwhite is simply the next step in the Kindle series. I guess that requires me to qualify that the previous Kindles are good at what they do. They are built well, and they are responsive enough to not be frustrating despite the screen taking half a second to redraw. The Paperwhite builds on this with a well implemented backlight. Its only drawback is the lack of hardware page-turn buttons: if it had inherited these from the regular Kindle, it would be, without doubt, my perfect e-reader.

I think this means the Paperwhite wins.

What do you think? Use the comments below to tell me if you agree, or if you think the GlowLight is superior!

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